It's 10th Anniversary of Funky "Simpsons"

By William Porter

© Denver Post, January 14, 2000.


After 10 years as television's smartest sitcom, one that consistently serves up knee-slapping slapstick and astute social satire through a memorable cast of characters and helped the world's richest Australian turn his fledgling network into a major industry player - hey, all you get is a lousy star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame?

Well, no one ever said it was easy being a three-fingered cartoon figure with banana-colored skin.

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the debut of "The Simpsons" as a weekly sitcom. What started as cartoonist Matt Groening's funky sketch on the de-funct "Tracy Ullman Show" has morphed into an entertainment icon, with all the requisite trappings of its pop-culture status.

The show has created catch-phrases, embroiled a U.S. secretary of education in a national debate, launched its writers (Conan O'Brien among them) into the limelight, kick-started Rupert Murdoch's Fox network, spawned ancillary product lines and inspired like-minded shows such as "King of the Hill" and "South Park." Along the way it has become the longest-running primetime animated series in TV history.

More important, the show, with 240 episodes under its belt, still provides water-cooler fodder when folks show up at work Monday morning - and for those who watch the reruns on Fox, every other day of the week.

Not bad for one spectacularly dysfunctional family (parents Homer and Marge, plus their kids - Bart, Lisa and Maggie) and the denizens of an oddball burg called Springfield.

Fox isn't planning anything special to mark the occasion, says network publicist Jill Hudson. But today Groening and the cast will watch the placement of that commemorative star. That's about it.

Just what is it about the show that has captivated so many people, and influenced a generation's comic sensibility?

"One of the reasons for the show's widespread appeal is that there's something in it for everyone," says Mike Scully, the show's executive producer and occasional scriptwriter. The kids really identify with Bart and Lisa and they like the physical comedy.

"And while adults can relate to Bart and Lisa through memories of their own childhoods, they also enjoy all the social commentary." Indeed, one of the real pleasures for "Simpsons" aficionados is tracking the background stuff. Some fans tape episodes, then dissect them with the remote's freeze-frame button to catch the jokes they missed - cosmetic creams named "Gee, Your Lip Looks Hairless" and the Ms. magazine cover blurb, "Hating and Dating: Do They Mix?"

While the show's comic references are cutting-edge hip, "The Simpsons" follows a sitcom formula that dates back nearly half of a century.

Think about it. The show revolves around a loving family with a dimbulb dad, long-suffering wife and smart-aleck kids. Each 30-minute episode features a rather traditional arc of conflict and resolution, with sundry subplots. And like such classic comedies as "The Andy Griffith Show" and "M*A*S*H," there's a vast and unforgettable supporting cast.

"One of the things that always makes me laugh about the show is that we're constantly referred to as groundbreaking," Scully says. "And when I look at the show and its structure, I see every cliché you can think of. I mean, the mischievous little boy Bart goes all the way back to Dennis the Menace.

"But somehow when it all comes together, it's innovative," he says.

As an animated show, "The Simpsons" enjoys privileges live-action shows don't.

For one thing, there are no budget constraints on what you can have characters do. Want to send the Simpsons to Japan? Set Homer down in a prehistoric landscape? Have Mary Poppins and her flying umbrella sucked into an airliner's jet intake?

Whip out the ink pens, fire up the Macintosh, and presto! Conventional rules of physics can be suspended; it's far easier to play with Einstein's elastic universe in a cartoon than in real life.

Another asset is the show's nine-month lead time. While the animation is being created, writers are constantly honing jokes. If there's a big news event, such as the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, topical wisecracks can be dropped in at the last minute. The animated format also allows the luxury of a huge supporting cast, whose members never press for re-negotiated contracts or wind up committed to other projects. (The six actors who give them voice, including the 20-voiced Harry Shearer, might be another matter.)

Week in and week out, the roiling stew of townsfolk - Montgomery Burns, Ned Flanders, Groundskeeper Willie, the Rev. Lovejoy, Apu, Krusty the Klown, Selma and Patty - give the show's writers a wealth of comic fodder.

Such is the show's appeal that celebrity guest voices are never hard to come by, which gives ample opportunity to lampoon real-life events. Guest voices have included Johnny Carson, Mel Gibson, Sharon Stone, Mark McGwire and even physicist Stephen Hawking and astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

Prime-time animation had been done before "The Simpsons." Inspired by Jackie Gleason's "The Honeymooners," HannaBarbera put "The Flintstones" on evening TV in the early 1960s.

While it's conceivable that the current wave of animated shows would have found their way to prime-time without the "Simpsons," the success of Groening's brainchild certainly made network honchos more receptive to the idea that such shows could score with viewers.

"It's got two more years," he has often joked. "A year to coast, and a year to drive it right into the ground."

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Last updated on May 12, 2001 by Jouni Paakkinen (